Making Jams, Jellies and Fruit Preserves

Homemade jams, jellies and fruit preserves are a favorite treat in summer and all year long. Today we will discuss the basic steps and hints for delicious homemade treats from your garden or orchard.

Many of the points in today’s discussion come from the publication:

B2909 Making Jams, Jellies and Fruit Preserves

The season for summer fruits which can be deliciously preserved as jam or jelly isn’t far behind.

This publication will offer ideas for regular and low- or no-sugar jams and jellies.

Start with 4 basic ingredients:

Fruit gives each product its characteristic color and flavor.  Use at least some flavorful, just-ripe fruit in each recipe. You may also be able to use canned, frozen or dried fruit. Use canned or frozen fruits preserved without sugar. Thaw frozen fruit in the refrigerator before using. Cook dried fruit in water until tender and use to make jams and conserves.

Pectin is the natural plant substance (carbohydrate) that causes fruit to gel, and there are many options available now for pectin (more on that later).

Acid is essential in jellied fruit products for both gel formation and flavor.  The acid content varies among fruits, and is higher in under-ripe fruits.  For best quality, add bottled lemon juice to fully ripened, low-acid fruits according to tested recipes.

Sugar is another essential ingredient in jellied fruit products.  Added sugar preserves fruit, helps the gel form, and contributes to flavor.  Use the amount of sugar a recipe calls for, or the product will not form a gel. To make a low-sugar or no-sugar product, choose a pectin or research-tested recipe designed for this.  Sugar substitutes — also called artificial sweeteners — cannot replace sugar in regular recipes because the sugar is needed to form a gel.

Fruits such as apples, crabapples, currants, grapes and some plums contain enough natural pectin to form a gel; others require added pectin.  You can add pectin to any fruit to ensure a good gel, and there are several advantages for doing so:

You can use fully ripe, flavorful fruit

Cooking time is shorter so you retain more of the natural color and flavor of the fruit

You will have more jars on the shelf from the same amount of fruit.

Regular pectins work with sugar, fruit and acid to form a gel. Regular pectin comes in two types, liquid (such as Certo) and powdered (such as Sure-Jell). Liquid pectin is added to a hot pre-cooked mixture of sugar and fruit and cooked for 1 more minute; powdered pectin is cooked with fruit, then sugar is added and the mixture is cooked for 1 more minute. The two types of pectin are not interchangeable.

Low-methoxyl pectins are chemically different from regular pectins and can gel with little or no added sugar. The resulting gel will be softer, but this can be acceptable for those on a low-sugar or no-sugar diet. The product also tends to be less sweet, and to have a fruiter taste. Even commercial manufacturers are taking advantage of this type of gelling agent to produce high quality products.

No sugar refrigerator products may call for powdered gelatin as the gelling agent. Powdered gelatin is a protein, unlike pectin which is a carbohydrate. Gelatin must be treated carefully or the gel structure will break. So, do not freeze these jellies and do not can these products. Store them in the refrigerator.

Acid is essential in jellied fruit products. Sometimes the acid comes from under-ripe fruit, and sometime it is added in the form of bottled lemon juice. Freshly squeezed lemon juice won’t necessarily work as well.

Added sugar preserves jellied fruit by inhibiting the growth of microbes, helps form the gel, and adds flavor too! Measure sugar carefully and do not reduce the amount in the recipe. Beet and cane sugar will work equally well.  Using brown sugar is not recommended because of the dark color it imparts to the finished product. Honey or light corn syrup can be used, but remember that liquid ingredients must be adjusted accordingly. These sweeteners will also impart a stronger flavor and color to jellied fruit products.

There are a wide variety of sugar substitutes available on the market. These can NOT substitute for sugar if using regular pectin, but can be used to add sweetness when making jams and jellies with low-methoxyl pectin. Sugar substitutes such as sucralose (Splenda) and saccharin (Sweet-n-Low) tend to hold up well during heating. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for using these products. Do not use aspartame (Equal or Nutrasweet) as the resulting product will be unsatisfactory.

Many consumers wonder why they need to water bath can jams and jellies, especially when the pectin packages that they buy in the store suggest that inverting the hot-filled jars is sufficient.  Well, there are several good reasons for water bath canning:

  • helps form of a good seal on a product

  • destroys yeast and mold which might be present on the rim or lid and thus increases shelf life (it’s really a pasteurization process)

  • is required for any item entered in a county fair competition

Because of their high sugar content, jams and jellies will not readily support the growth of microorganisms; and certainly not when they are sealed with a vacuum seal. But once the jars are opened, then microbial growth can begin. By putting jars through a water bath process, the jars are more likely to seal and to resist mold and yeast growth once opened.

Sometimes, regardless of how careful you are, jams and jellies refuse to set. Most any jellied fruit product makes great syrup, but sometimes jam or jelly is all that is acceptable. Consumers can try to re-make jams and jellies, although the resulting product will be darker in color and may have more of a cooked flavor.

In general, recooking of jams and jellies that don’t set will be most successful if:

  • You work in small batches

  • You carefully measure all ingredients

  • You add pectin to the product as you are re-cooking

See pages 14-15 of the Jams and Jellies publication for hints on successfully remaking Jams and Jellies.

Everyone who has answered questions about jams and jellies has been confronted with questions such as:

  • Why does the fruit float at the top of my jam? Fruit will have less of a tendency to float if it ‘soaks’ in sugar and if sufficient air is released; both not usually an option in the rapid cooking process when making jams with added pectin. So.. Consider stirring the cooked fruit/pectin/sugar mixture for 5 minutes off the stove before ladeling into jars. This will help fruit to settle throughout the product.

  • Is moldy jam safe to eat? If kept too long in the refrigerator, or on the counter, jam, jelly and other fruit products will eventually mold. Current USDA recommends are to discard all moldy product. Be sure to start with pre-sterilized jars and pre-treated lids. Be sure to include a water bath processing step as part of your process. And be sure that the water bath covers the top of the jars by at least 1 inch during processing.

  • Why is using paraffin not recommended? Paraffin does not form as tight a seal as water bath processing and is no longer recommended.

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